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Review: ‘Elvis’ is one fried peanut butter and banana sandwich of a movie, tasty but overstuffed

  • August 09, 2022

Baz Luhrmann’s musical drama “Elvis” has all the pomp and pompadour one would expect by putting Elvis Presley’s iconic life on screen. If only the storytelling was as dazzling as his bejeweled jumpsuits.

The relationship between Elvis (Austin Butler) and his notorious manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), is at the center of an overlong, narrative mess (★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu, Google Play and other on-demand platforms), as excessive as one of the King’s fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. 

However, with Butler’s stellar portrayal, it’s never dull, and more enjoyable than not. The musical numbers are often dazzling, boosted by Luhrmann’s inimitable style. And the plot (for better and for worse) covers a ton of Presley’s life. But even when it’s over, you’re still not sure what Hanks is doing.

 Did he really fire Colonel Tom Parker onstage in Las Vegas?

The film quickly rolls through his early days as a rising star in the 1950s, as Parker convinces Elvis to take him on as manager, and the singer causes enough of a ruckus that getting drafted into the Army is a decent PR move. Stationed in Germany, he meets future wife, Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), whom Elvis begins to trust more than the sly, shady Colonel. 

 How Austin Butler vanished into the role of Elvis Presley

Butler makes for a phenomenal King of rock ’n’ roll because, rather than going the impersonator route, he grows into being Elvis just as the real one did, from truck driver to musical deity. And while Presley’s own vocals were used in the latter part of the movie, Butler sings the early songs and brings real electricity to a performer who’s just beginning to leave the world all shook up.

His acting lessons began when Tom Hanks delivered a typewriter to his door

While the kitchen-sink approach to Presley’s life doesn’t totally work, the film does have fits of strength. DeJonge is spot-on as Priscilla, although Elvis’ marriage is treated mainly as a subplot. The movie also interestingly dips into his respect for (and relationship with) the influential Black musicians of Beale Street, such as B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

Luhrmann’s gift for presenting musical fantasias, proven in his glorious “Moulin Rouge,” is on display here, not only with the well-crafted Butler scenes, but with a stirring performance of “Hound Dog” by Shonka Dukureh (as Big Mama Thornton), a soulful “That’s All Right” courtesy of Gary Clark Jr. (channeling Arthur Crudup), and a show-stopping “Tutti Frutti” from Alton Mason (who plays Little Richard).

You can’t help falling in love with the music, Butler’s transformation into a legend and Luhrmann’s signature flourishes: Comic-book panels reflect Presley’s love of superheroes, and there’s a groovy ‘60s-style movie montage. However, at the risk of checking into Heartbreak Hotel, don’t get your hopes up for a cohesive classic befitting a King.

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